Back to Mars: Maven arrives in orbit

In this artist concept provided by NASA, the Maven spacecraft approaches Mars on a mission to study its upper atmosphere. Maven iss designed to circle the planet, not land. (AP Photo/NASA)

In this artist concept provided by NASA, the Maven spacecraft approaches Mars on a mission to study its upper atmosphere. Maven iss designed to circle the planet, not land. (AP Photo/NASA)


NASA’s Maven spacecraft arrived at Mars late Sunday after a 442 million-mile journey that began nearly a year ago.

The robotic explorer fired its brakes and successfully slipped into orbit around the red planet, officials confirmed.

“I think my heart’s about ready to start again,” said Maven’s chief investigator, Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado. “All I can say at this point is, ‘We’re in orbit at Mars, guys!’”

Now the real work begins for the $671 million mission, the first dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere.

Flight controllers in Colorado will spend the next six weeks adjusting Maven’s altitude and checking its science instruments, and observing a comet streaking by. Then in early November, Maven will start probing the upper atmosphere of Mars. The spacecraft will conduct its observations from orbit; it’s not meant to land.

In the sky: Scientists believe the Martian atmosphere holds clues as to how Earth’s neighbor went from being warm and wet billions of years ago to cold and dry. That early wet world may have harbored microbial life, a tantalizing question yet to be answered.

NASA launched Maven last November from Cape Canaveral, the 10th U.S. mission sent to orbit the red planet. Three earlier ones failed, and until the official word came of success late Sunday night, the entire team was on edge.

“I don’t have any fingernails any more, but we’ve made it,” said Colleen Hartman, deputy director for science at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s incredible.”

Maven joins three spacecraft already circling Mars, two American and one European. And the traffic jam isn’t over: India’s first interplanetary probe, Mangalyaan, will reach Mars in two days and also aim for orbit.

Martian air:
Jakosky, who’s with the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, hopes to learn where all the water on Mars went, along with the carbon dioxide that once comprised an atmosphere thick enough to hold moist clouds.

The gases may have been stripped away by the sun early in Mars’ existence, escaping into the upper atmosphere and out into space. Maven’s observations should be able to extrapolate back in time, Jakosky said.

Maven — short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission — will spend at least a year collecting data. That’s a full Earth year, half a Martian one. Its orbit will dip as low as 78 miles above the Martian surface as its eight instruments make measurements. The craft is as long as a school bus, from solar wingtip to tip, and as hefty as an SUV.

Comet: Maven will have a rare brush with a comet next month.

The nucleus of newly discovered Comet Siding Spring will pass 82,000 miles from Mars on Oct. 19. The risk of comet dust damaging Maven is low, officials said, and the spacecraft should be able to observe Siding Spring as a science bonus.

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Online:

NASA: http://mars.nasa.gov/maven/

University of Colorado: http://lasp.colorado.edu/home/maven/

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Reported by MARCIA DUNN of the Associated Press from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.

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Here’s a video showing the final minutes before MAVEN’s arrival into Mars orbit. http://youtu.be/l3SryPMaRYw

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Astronauts release itty-bitty satellite

Circled in red is a tiny Peruvian research satellite, which launched by hand from astronauts aboard the International Space Station, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/NASA)

Circled in red is a tiny Peruvian research satellite, which launched by hand from astronauts aboard the International Space Station, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/NASA)

Spacewalking astronauts launched a tiny Peruvian research satellite Monday, setting it loose on a mission to observe Earth.

Russian Oleg Artemiev tossed the 4-inch box from his gloved right hand as the International Space Station sailed 260 miles above the lanet. The nanosatellite gently tumbled away, precisely as planned.

“One, two, three,” someone called out in Russian as Artemiev let go of the satellite.

Cameras watched as the nanosatellite — named Chasqui after the Inca messengers who were fleet of foot — increased its distance and grew smaller. Artemiev’s Russian spacewalking partner, Alexander Skvortsov, tried to keep his helmet camera aimed at the satellite as it floated away.

The satellite — barely 2 pounds — holds instruments to measure temperature and pressure, and cameras that will photograph Earth. It’s a technological learning experience for the National University of Engineering in Lima. A Russian cargo ship delivered the device earlier this year.

With that completed, Artemiev and Skvortsov set about installing fresh science experiments outside the Russian portion of the space station and retrieving old ones. “Be careful,” Russian Mission Control outside Moscow warned as the astronauts made their way to their next work site. They also collected samples from a window of the main Russian living compartment; engineers want to check for any engine residue from visiting spacecraft.

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Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html

Reported by MARCIA DUNN of The Associated Press from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.

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Enjoy the view from Planet Earth

This NASA photo was taken over 841 orbits of the Hubble Telescope and shows about 10,000 multi-colored galaxies. (AP Photo/NASA)

This NASA photo was taken over 841 orbits of the Hubble Telescope and shows about 10,000 multi-colored galaxies. (AP Photo/NASA)

The Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits Earth and takes pictures of deep space, has captured our cosmos at its most colorful.

A new NASA panorama photo is showing the world how deep and far the universe has gone.

The image is special because it mixes what we can normally see with objects only visible in the ultraviolet light spectrum. This type of light is normally not visible to the human eye. Using special lenses, this light shows up in the photo as bright baby blue with spinning galaxies, which are about 5 to 10 billion years old, not too old or young in cosmic terms.

The speckled photo is also special in another way — it wasn’t done with one snap of the camera. Instead, it’s a composite of more than 800 photos taken by Hubble and that allowed it to show about 10,000 multi-colored galaxies.

Hubble astronomer Zolt Levay said by adding ultraviolet and infrared to the pictures, people can now see the universe in the broad spectrum of color “and then some.”

CLICK HERE FOR A HUGE VERSION OF THE PICTURE!

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Online:

Hubble: http://hubblesite.org/

Reported by The Associated Press from WASHINGTON.

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Can you stay up late to see an eclipse?

The different stages of the moon during a lunar eclipse are seen from the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. On Tuesday morning, April 15, 2014, the moon will be eclipsed by Earth's shadow and will be visible across the Western Hemisphere. The total phase will last 78 minutes. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

The different stages of the moon during a lunar eclipse are seen from the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. On Tuesday morning, April 15, 2014, the moon will be eclipsed by Earth’s shadow and will be visible across the Western Hemisphere. The total phase will last 78 minutes. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Hey, kids of North and South America, get ready for the first eclipse of the year, but you’ll have to get up really early or stay up really late.

Next Tuesday morning (April 15), the moon will be eclipsed by Earth’s shadow. This total lunar eclipse will be visible across the Western Hemisphere, which includes all of North America. The total shadowed phase will last 78 minutes, beginning at 3:06 a.m. and ending at 4:24 a.m..

Even though the moon is in the Earth’s shadow, it should appear a bit colorful, some shade of red or orange. That’s from light around the edges of the Earth — essentially sunrises and sunsets — splashing on the lunar surface and faintly lighting up the moon, said Alan MacRobert, senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine.

On April 29, the Southern Hemisphere will be treated to a rare type of solar eclipse.

In all, four eclipses will occur this year, two lunar and two solar.

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Online:

NASA: http://1.usa.gov/NFJLGE

Reported by MARCIA DUNN of the Associated Press from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.

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Catch up with the world’s satellites

This NOAA satellite image taken Wednesday, March 26, 2014 at 10:45 AM  shows a prominent storm wound up off the the Northeast US with clouds across much of the western Atlantic Basin with heavy snow and strong winds affecting Nova Scotia and coastal New England.  (AP PHOTO/WEATHER UNDERGROUND)

This NOAA satellite image taken Wednesday, March 26, 2014 at 10:45 AM shows a prominent storm wound up off the the Northeast US with clouds across much of the western Atlantic Basin with heavy snow and strong winds affecting Nova Scotia and coastal New England. (AP PHOTO/WEATHER UNDERGROUND)

The use of satellites during the search for a lost jetliner has drawn attention to those orbiting platforms. Here is a snapshot of what’s in orbit, with help from Nicholas Johnson, who retired Thursday as NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris:

HOW MANY SATELLITES ARE UP THERE?

About 1,100 active satellites, both government and private. Plus there are about 2,600 ones that no longer work. Russia launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957. The oldest one still in orbit, which is no longer functioning, was launched in 1958.

HOW BIG ARE THEY?

Size varies. Communication satellites can be as big as a small school bus and weigh up to 6 tons, the Federal Communications Commission says. Most weigh a few tons or less. Some that are used briefly are 4 inch cubes and weigh about 2 pounds.

WHAT EXACTLY DO THEY DO?

They have a wide variety of roles: GPS satellites aid navigation, others relay telephone or television signals, others aid in weather forecasting, national defense, science, and agriculture, as in monitoring crops and areas of drought. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a private organization that maintains a database of satellites, says about 60 percent are used for communications.

WHERE ARE THEY?

It depends on their use. Communications satellites relay signals from a fixed spot on the equator, about 22,000 miles up. GPS satellites are at 12,400 miles, high enough to be accessible to large swaths of the Earth. Others that need a closer look at Earth are lower. For comparison, the International Space Station is only about 260 miles high, and very few satellites are lower than that. While some satellites remain over fixed spots on Earth, others fly over both poles or can move from place to place as needed.

You can see their locations at the NASA satellite tracker: http://1.usa.gov/1dyKhCd

HOW HAVE THEY HELPED IN THE SEARCH?

A British communications satellite picked up signals from the plane; analysis of them led authorities to conclude that the airliner crashed in a remote area of the southern Indian Ocean. This week, Thai authorities said one of their satellites spotted 300 objects that might be from the airliner. Some satellites were moved into place to look for debris.

WHO OWNS THEM?

Governments large and small, and private companies. More than 50 countries own a satellite or a significant share in one, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. There are 502 active satellites with a U.S. tie; 118 for Russia and 116 for China. Thailand has four satellites and shares in another, the scientist group says.

WHAT IF THEY STOP WORKING?

Old satellites can pose a risk for collisions with active ones, so there are rules and recommendations to avoid a buildup of junk in space. Satellites that fly below a certain height are supposed to be put in an orbit that will make them fall to Earth and burn up within 25 years. At high altitudes, they are to be boosted up to still higher orbits to get them out of the way.

Reported by MALCOLM RITTER of the Associated Press

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Detecting distant planets with the Doppler Effect

This artist's conception  shows a hypothetical planet with two moons orbiting in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star. (AP Photo/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, David A. Aguilar)

This artist’s conception shows a hypothetical planet in our galaxy. Scientists are using the Doppler effect to detect new planets. (AP Photo/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, David A. Aguilar)

An ambulance whizzes by, and suddenly its siren drops in pitch. We are all familiar with the Doppler effect, even if we don’t know it by name. Now, scientists have found an alternative version of the phenomenon, for when sound, or light, scatters off a rotating object. The discovery could enable astronomers to measure a distant planet’s rotation, or even improve the performance of wind turbines.

Here’s how the Doppler effect works: When a noisy object is moving toward you, its sound waves bunch up, producing a higher frequency, or pitch. Conversely, as soon as the object is moving away from you, the sound waves stretch out, and the pitch lowers. The faster the object, the greater the pitch change.

The Doppler effect occurs for light as well as sound. For instance, astronomers routinely determine how fast stars and galaxies are moving away from us by measuring the extent to which their light is “stretched” into the lower frequency, red part of the spectrum. Redshifts like this were famously used in the 1920s to infer that most stars and galaxies are moving away from us and that the universe must be expanding.

Redshifts in light, and the pitch-drop of passing sirens, are examples of a linear Doppler effect. In recent decades, however, scientists have discovered that the Doppler effect also exists for objects that are rotating,  the so-called orbital angular momentum (OAM) of light, and now researchers they believe they can determine how fast a planet is spinning.

Back on Earth, he adds, lasers that measure the OAM could be sent through wind farms to determine the rotation of air currents. “If you’re a windmill, you’d like to know in advance of blustery wind, so you can tether your blades.”

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Reported by JON CARTWRIGHT of ScienceNOW. This is adapted from ScienceNOW, the online daily news service of the journal Science. http://news.sciencemag.org

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